Riker's Mailbox

Thursday, August 23, 2007


"I am atheist."

"I am an atheist."

As I've posted previously, I prefer the former. But why exactly?

Used the first way, 'atheist' is an adjective. Used the second way, it becomes a noun. Grammar is a subtlely powerful device, and that small change makes all the difference in the world. For example:

"A fat, happy, playful dog." Adjective, Adjective, Adjective, Noun. The first three are its component attributes, the fourth is simply 'it'.

When identifying ourselves , Most of us put 'atheist' in that last place, and it overshadows all the good adjectives that might come before it. All the adjectives characterize the atheist, instead of 'atheist' being among words characterizing the person. I think this is a misstep, especially in a time where the term 'atheist' is so widely misrepresented.

For one thing, to anyone outside the category it de-personifies us. For another, it defines us in purely adversarial terms against anyone who might be described as religious. And we don't always want to be that... or at least, not always so blatantly so.

We've been labeled that way by the religious for so long that we've gotten used to it. It's probably our own fault that we haven't done so much to correct the misinterpretations of what it means to be atheist. This is my point from above: Most people who hear the word think that 'atheist' is all we are, or all that matters when it comes to judging our character. Collectively, we do tend to say "I'm an atheist," the way we'd say "I'm a realtor." That makes it an all-encompassing descriptor; it's what you spend the majority of your time doing. But if you just say "I'm atheist", it's like saying "I'm superstitious". It describes an aspect of you, not YOU. Nobody says they're superstitionists.

When somebody finds out I'm atheist and reacts in shock with a phrase like, "But you're such a good person!", I use a little analogy to help them understand that their notion of 'atheist' is dramatically exaggerated. It goes like this:

"Do you eat hamburgers*? Yes? So you're a hamburgerist? Should I assume that all you ever eat is hamburgers, all you ever think of are hamburgers, and that you believe hamburgers are better than the food other people eat?"

Yes, it's designed to be a little preposterous, but it drives the point home. I should mention that I don't just reply with this canned phrase. That would be too rude and condescending for all but the most infuriating debators. I introduce it as an analogy first.

Anyway, I thought these thoughts were pretty good and worth worth sharing...

...not that I'm proclaiming myself an intelligentist, or anything.

* - I originally wanted to use 'vegetables' in place of 'hamburgers', but there really is such a thing as a vegetarian... and 'hamburgerist' is too funny a word to pass up.

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